Glenn Underground is the founding member of the Strictly Jaz Unit. He was raised on disco classics and freeform jazz in Chicago’s Southside, the place where house music was born. Taking inspiration from Chicago’s original pioneers, Larry Heard, Ron Hardy, Lil’ Louis, and the like, Glenn has produced some of the most well respected deep house music of the past five years. His releases for Cajual, Prescription Guidance and Peacefrog have set the standard for sophisticated dance music. He is one of the few DJ’s who can walk the line between deep jazz house, disco influenced house, and the kind of classics featured at the legendary parties of late 70’s Chicago.
GLENN UNDERGROUND – 5 MAGAZINE INTERVIEW
Sept 2009 LINK
When I get to Glenn
Underground’s house (myspace, label, discogs) his roommate Boo Williamsopens the door. The studio has been moved since the last time I visited and seems to have gotten an upgrade. Glenn, Boo and I chill for a little and they play a few classics for me. Boo starts to look for a record I asked him about a couple of years ago and I figure it’s as good a time as any to launch into the interview.Glenn (or GU, one of his many monikers) is soft-spoken, despite tales of his bluster. Opinionated and intelligent, he is easy to talk to and he readily shares his thoughts on matters big and small.
What is your take on the difference between analog and digital sound?
It’s harmonic distortion versus ones and zeros. A UC-Berkeley professor made analog and digital recordings of bird sounds and then played them back for the birds. The birds didn’t respond to the playback of the digital recordings; it seemed that they couldn’t understand them or hear them. However, when the analog recordings were played back, the birds began to chirp/sing back as if there were other birds in the room with them.
I’ve worked with a lot of producers and I’ve never seen anyone work on the MPC as fast as you. How did you get so good?
Debrice King introduced me to the MPC. Before that I was working on different workstation/sequencers like the Alesis HR16, the Kawai K5. One day, Boo brought the MPC 60-II to my house and left it and I just started playing with it. Once I figured out what makes it work and what makes it work for you, I would be on it day and night – like 24 hours a day – to the point that my mother would be yelling at me to turn that shit down or turn that shit off. That was about 1991. Before that it was just about MIDI’ing a keyboard into a drum machine and beating out the notes on the drum pads.
Lets talk about sounds. Your sounds are really warm and it sounds like you take sounds that others don’t have or sounds that they do have and twist them to make them yours. Where do you get this wide library of sounds?
Back then I used the classic drum machines. Now I use samples. Roger Linn took beat-making to the next level because instead of taking a set, processed sound, he made it possible to take a kick or snare or another part from a disco record and break it up. From there you can create your own drum sound which makes everything go beyond authentic. Now you’re creating your own sound within this sample-based unit (the MPC). Recently, I just used a kick (from a well known ’70s Jazz/Fusion producer) for a song I did because I was looking for that ’70s sound.
Lets get some of the regular stuff taken care of. When did you first start spinning out?
Well, I started spinning around 1984. My uncle used to play at DingBats and he got me started. I started spinning “out” around 1986. On a fluke, I lucked-up on a chance to play at a place named the “It’s House Social Club” at 71st and Paxton. From there it was the hotel parties on up to the Powerhouse on 22nd Street.
When did you start the CVO project?
The CVO (Chicago’s Very Own) name started around 1991 but the first release was about 1994-95. It’s the more techy/ambient/driving (but also jazzy) side of Glenn Underground. CVO is like my alter ego.
Are you still using the CVO moniker?
Yeah, actually I just brought the CVO sound back into play with a project I just did called “Vision” on a label Boo and I have called Strictly Jazz Unit (SJU) Music.
Now you know we’ve got to talk about Dust Traxx. When did you first start doing recording with those guys?
Around 1996-97. It started out that he (Radek, CEO of Dusttraxx Records) was just a fan, a little young raver guy that came to me and Boo to buy our mixes to sell at raves. At the end of 1996, he dropped a wad of cash on us and said, “Put some people together and give me a good compilation album.” At that point it was cool, but it went downhill from there. I still chit-chat and kick it with the owner and I have no ill-will toward him but it’s like good food. You either make it last or go overboard. He went overboard.
The upside is, you put out a bunch of quality records on Dust Traxx and you can get paid off of that music forever.
Yeah and I own my own publishing, 100% (after a term). I learned from the Chicago greats and New York greats: since they (the label) weren’t in the studio with you when you cut the record, they didn’t have any input on the song, so they don’t get any publishing. That goes for any label, major or independent. Unless they can keep my refrigerator full until Jesus comes, they can’t have my publishing.
Was the finishing off of your business relationship (with Dust Traxx) the fist fight at Green Dolphin?
You were there that night?
I did promotions for those Thursday night parties.
Yeah, that was the “say-all and end-all”. We tried to put some unity together after that but if you don’t understand this scene – and this is no racist thing – but if you don’t understand this thing, concerning Black music, and if you’re from another race or ethnicity, you can make mistakes with it. Because a lot of Black musicians produce from our heart and with our pain and our love and everything around us. When you take our music and treat it like it’s the bottom of your shoe, I’m gonna have a problem with it. It’s like me going to Italy and fucking up some Italian guy’s pizza parlor. I can’t tell him anything about that because that’s what he does, that’s his thing that he brought to the world for the world to experience and if you do it, do it his way. You’ve got to stick to the protocol.
Well, what’s the protocol?
If you’re going to do it, do it right. In any genre, when music gets commercialized, it goes bad. It gets twisted. People with money try to capitalize off of a fabrication rather than the truth and they fuck it up. The music gets lost.
Where have you played overseas?
Everywhere. The only two places I haven’t been where there is a dance scene are Israel and Russia. I won’t go to Israel because it’s not time for Black DJs yet. It’s the hottest place on Earth (as far as war goes) and you don’t know if you are playing for the opposition of some group and the next thing you know, they’re flying your body back home. I haven’t played in Russia yet but if they stop bootlegging Black music from America, I would. It’s hard to sell units and this is what I do for a living. At this point, bootlegging is at an all-time high. I put out a Boo Williams track named “Tazer” and the next day it was up on a Russian site for free. Every artist should set up a Google account with alerts for all the names you record under so you can keep track of any unauthorized releases.
Bootlegging is not just limited to consumers. DJs do it too. Now I can say that I openly give music to Louie Vega because I know he’s gonna play it and he’s not gonna give it out to people. But among others, I’m sort of defensive about my music because now its out of control. You want people to have your music but you have to hold on to it.
I challenge every DJ and producer – if someone gives you something, lead by example and don’t give it away. Show courtesy to the person who gave you that track by keeping it just for you. I’m not a stranger to people saying “no” to me. If I don’t have the song, I don’t have it and I may love the song more than… food. And everyone knows that Glenn Underground – Mr. Crocker – is a master at saying “no” to yo ass.
The question has been asked, do you think you’re bitter and/or have a sense of entitlement? Give me your thoughts.
Some would think that I have a sense of entitlement because I’m sure of me but that doesn’t entitle me to anything that’s not mine, so no, I don’t think that I have a sense of entitlement.
And am I bitter? If so, it’s at Chicago for not being professional. Lets take the nightclub scene for example. A nice club opens and they base success not off of how may heads are there having a good time, staying out of trouble, but instead on how many people are drinking. Or Chicago will put a lot of money into a club but have a whack-ass sound system. Or Chicago will put a lot of money into a club but have a tired-ass DJ – not one tired-ass DJ but like 20 tired ass DJs in a month, one DJ on the first Sunday of the month or Hip-Hop on Wednesdays – all of that.
You used to be able to identify a club with the DJ. Ron Hardy was the Music Box. The Pleasure Dome became Andre Hatchett’s house. Louis was at Exit all night. The DJs used to spoil you back then. These days you can’t get spoiled. These days there are too many DJs in a night or throughout the week, one thing on one night and another thing on another night. Also, many DJs don’t let music play and so they give the wrong interpretation. It makes people restless.
Which DJs are your favorites in Chicago?
Great DJs in Chicago: Boo Williams, Ron Trent, Anthony Nicholson, Terry Hunter, Andre Hatchett, the veteran interviewing me (Charles Matlock), Elvis Armstrong, Darren Brandon… But people don’t come out to support our own as much as out-of-town DJs. Now this is no diss, because Louie Vega is my man, but when Louie or another New York DJ or a DJ from overseas comes to Chicago, people come out.
Do you include yourself in that class?
Well, we don’t get hired as much. I’m not saying “Hire me” – I could give a shit if you hire me or not, I’m gonna get mine anyway. I like playing in other countries. But I’ve had people contact me here and say, “All we’ve got is $400. How much do you charge?” In that order. I say, “If I’m in America, I’ll do it for a fair price: $2,000. But for you, I’d do it for $1,000.” They say, “Man, $1,000? That’s too much.” I say, “But you just brought in Tom, Dick and Harry from New York or overseas, and you dropped $4,000 if they’re giving you a play. And on top of that, you’ve paid for plane tickets, a night at the W or some other ritzy hotel, you had to take them out to dinner, pay for gas to get to and from the airport… Muthafucka, I live here, you don’t have to pay for my food and I’m using my own gas to get to your club and back and you can’t pay me $1,000?!”
How many releases do you have out? Albums and singles?
Six albums with about 12 songs each and over 100 singles. The reason I do this is because I like to entertain people and that’s the only way I know how to do it. Don’t be mad at me because of my personal views or if I don’t know you when I’m out, unless you introduce yourself. As far as the way I feel, I don’t hate anybody but if I don’t agree with you, don’t use that as a tool to bash my sound. Separate the man from the music. And really, if Michael Jackson had taken the time to befriend everyone, he wouldn’t have had any time for himself. I’ve got a life too, so respect that. But if you support my music, I love you and you’ve got my gratitude for it.
What do you get for playing overseas?
Minimum: 5 stacks. Average: 10 stacks.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Just support the sound. If you meet me, and we gotta respect each other, its cool, you can support me, cause I’m gonna always support mankind. Support the sound if you like my sound. If you don’t, its cool, I’m okay with that, it’s just an interpretation of me. And for the deephousepage people, the ones who hate, the non-genuine: For the record, Glenn Underground doesn’t hate gay people. I don’t have to agree with the lifestyle, but I’ve got a lot of gay friends. And I know its status quo for people to say that – like “I’ve got a lot of Black friends” – but I’ve got a lot of friends that are gay who I can say are my friends. You’re not going to agree on everything when it comes to life, and I don’t hate these people. And I don’t hate White people either. For the people who say that, some of my ex-girlfriends have been as “white at the driven snow”.
What gives you hope?
Music. It’s like knitting a perfect sweater… and DJing is the needle that sews it all together. Music calms the savage beast.